03 February, 2007

On academia

Or, The Glare of an Eye. I repost this, an old piece, in succinct articulation of doubt, and in lieu of immediate new material, which present business and sudden urgent thoughts prevent me from construing.

Whan we been there as we shul exercise
Oure elvysshe craft, we semen wonder wise,
Oure termes been so clergial and so queynte.
I blowe the fir til that myn herte feynte.

— Geoffrey Chaucer, 'The Canon's Yeoman's Tale' (c. 1385-1400)

SURLY. Rather than I'll be brayed, sir, I'll believe
That Alchemy is a pretty kind of game,
Somewhat like tricks o' the cards, to cheat a man
With charming.


SURLY. What else are all your terms,
Whereon no one of your writers 'grees with other?

. . . SUBTLE. And all these named,
Intending but one thing; which art our writers
Used to obscure their art.

— Ben Jonson, The Alchemist (1610), Act 2 Scene 1.
Each passage adjuts a long list of alchemical terminology. Chaucer mentions orpiment, sublimed mercury, litharge (lead monoxide), viols, crosslets, descensories, cucurbites and alembics, arsenic, sal armoniac, agrimony, valerian, calcination, albification, and so on; Jonson lists lac virginis, chrysosperm, mercury, 'oil of height', 'tree of life', marchesite, magnesia, tutty (zinc oxide), and the wonderful nonsense-sequence of 'lato, azoch, zernich, chibrit, heautarit'. Each, also, mentions candidates for the mysterious prima materia disputed by alchemists:
Unslekked lym, chalk, and gleyre of an ey,
Poudres diverse, asshes, donge, pisse, and cley (Chaucer)

With all your broths, your menstrues, and materials
Of piss and egg-shells, women's terms, man's blood,
Hair o' the head, burnt clouts, chalk, merds, and clay (Jonson)
We see here that Jonson follows Chaucer's list, with greater glee for the grotesque; he gives not eggwhite ('gleyre of an ey') but eggshells, not just donge (merds) but menstrues, also called 'women's terms'. That last word is interesting though, referring not just to the terms of the female period, and by metonymy the catamenia (OED sense 7b), but also playing on Surly's "What else are all your terms", the sense echoing the "termes. . . so clergial and so queynte" in Chaucer. The words and language of woman (as opposed to the jargon of the male alchemists themselves) are just like all the other filth and detritus postulated as the ultimate substance of the Philosopher's Stone. In both passages the search for gold remains fetishistic, gathering as materials the unwanted elements of the human body, like a man who retains women's fingernail-clippings for sexual arousal.

And all of this is just a 'pretty kind of game', a free play with signs—signs which are material (bodily refuse) and those which are verbal (terms). The alchemists' jargon makes them appear wise, as it is used to obscure what they are really doing; but even worse, even the professionals cannot agree on the meanings of these terms among themselves. They are left blowing at the athanor-fire until their hertes feynte with exhaustion, achieving nothing but the deception of others, and the accumulation of dross.


CoralPoetry said...


Congratulations on becoming a Blog of Note. Well done.


Erik said...

Thank you for this alchemist post. What I learned about alchemy is that it was of course rejected and despised by official church doctrine, and subject to much mockery, but when you read C.G. Jung on it and Goethes' Faust part II, one gets curious. I think it was an attempt to gain spiritual insight in supernatural, religious reality outside the official written words of Holy Scriptures. Remnants of alchemy one can find in Freemasonry and Rose Cross Orders and I think some parts of the Bible itself gave rise to its emergence in early Middle Ages. In the 18th century alchemy passed away because of the rise of science, which impeded symbolic treatment of chemical processes (same process as if you rationally explain a good poem, as so often teachers and "textbooks" do Secondary Schools)

Erik said...

Dear Sir,

if I may say so, is it not too much asked if, when your business and thoughts allow you to do so, you would be so kind to give an English translation of the advice given to Goethe as appearing in your blog's heading? I, and I presume not only I, would be very much obliged in their appreciation of this wish's fulfillment.

Sincerely yours,

Erik. :-)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, CP. Erik, yes; I have Jung's book of essays on alchemy. It is an interesting subject, as you say, more of a symbolic language than a science. Have you read Keith Thomas' Religion and the Decline of Magic? It talks about exactly these sorts of issues. What parts of the Bible are you referring to, by the way?

As for Goethe:

"A man should not restrict himself to one thing, for then he will become mad; rather he should have a thousand things, a confusion in his head." Appropriate, don't you think?

Mark said...

i like your blog.

Erik said...

I will dedicate a posting with one or more pictures to illustrate biblical origins of alchemy on my blog.

As for Goethe, as contradictory as the Bible sometimes:

"In der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister" (The Master is identified by his restriction) is also one of his statements.

He wrote much about a lot of subjects, but within each subject/theme/work every word has a sense and almost nothing is redundant.